Review: Roku Player

Recently, the owners of a site I do webmastering for decided to give me a bonus; it was exactly enough for me to order the Roku Player, which I’ve been interested in for quite a while.

So off I went to the Amazon.com Web site, and placed my order, using PayPal as my preferred method of payment. Two weeks passed. No Roku. No email saying the order was delayed. No tracking number. Nada. Zip Zilch. And Amazon (mercifully) had not charged my PayPal account. A few emails back and forth, and I figured out that Amazon had totally dropped the ball on this order; somehow, it fell through the cracks, and Roku was never notified that I wanted their product. So, I canceled the Amazon order, and ordered direct from Roku (for exactly the same price, and the same shipping). Three days later, a smallish purple package arrived; not much thicker than a standard desktop encyclopedia (the dead-tree kind, not the desktop PC kind), it was lightweight and said “Roku” in large white letters.

I eagerly opened the box, of course. Now, I am not the kind of guy who thinks an “unboxing” is a major event (I rank it right up there with the “unbagging” of the groceries), so I didn’t bother to take pics of that. The contents, though, are pretty interesting. the most important ones have photos here.

First, here’s the Roku Player, the remote for the Roku Player, and a standard sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 printer paper for size comparison, sitting on a 1-inch square grid (my wife’s sewing pattern guide, if you must know).

Roku with Remote
Roku with Remote

As you can see, the Player is a mere five inches square, give or take a quarter-inch. Here you can see the back panel, with the plethora of connectors, and note that the Player is only about 2 1/2 inches thick. This is a very tiny device!

Roku Back Panel
Roku Back Panel

And the front panel:

Roku Front Panel
Roku Front Panel

Note that there is no power switch whatsoever. I’ll talk about that more shortly. I neglected to take pics of the power supply, but it’s a tiny “wall-wart” style unit, about the same as the one I use for charging my cell phone. Here’s a pic of it from the Roku Web site (you can buy replacements for the power supply and the remote for only about ten bucks each):

Roku Power Supply
Roku Power Supply

The player comes with the usual red/white/yellow RCA cables for lowest-possible-video-quality connections. I had purchased an HDMI cable in a separate order from Amazon, which they managed to handle correctly; actually, I got two cables, at 1 cent each, and $6.98 shipping for the two of them together, so I have an extra. There is also a fold-out “Getting Started” guide. The Web site also has a more detailed  User Guide. Anyhow, I finished getting everything out of the box except the superfluous RCA cables, hooked everything up (power, cat5e network cable, and HDMI to the TV), turned on the TV, and was rewarded with a fast system software update to the Roku box. At some point, I think it asked me if I was going to use a wired or wireless connection (Wifi is built in, but I prefer my high-speed wired network). Anyhow, after the software update, the player rebooted itself, and asked what kind of TV I have – HDTV, old-school 4:3, or 16:9 anamorphic, if your widescreen TV doesn’t support 720p video. This can be changed later if you get a new TV, of course.

Finally, you’ll be asked which service you want to use. Right now (September 2009), Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Video on Demand, and MLB.com are supported. When more services are added, they’ll show up after your automatic software update. I chose Netflix, because while I have an Amazon account, I never use the VOD option; and I am about as interested in MLB.com as I am in having my chest waxed.

The first question you’ll be asked after selecting your service boils down to, “do you already have an account, or do you want to open a trial account?” I have a Netflix account, so a code was generated which I had to put into a Web page using my PC. Simple enough, I have a PC in the entertainment center; here is a pic showing the Roku Player, a DVD clamshell case for size comparison, and the humongous Dell PC all together:

Roku, DVD case, and Dell PC
Roku, DVD case, and Dell PC

By the time I had the TV switched back to the Roku Player, it was showing my Netflix Watch Instantly queue. I selected an episode of “The IT Crowd,” waited a couple of seconds while Netflix determined my Internet connection quality (which vastly exceeds the 4 Mbps required for HD streaming; I have 20 Mbps FiOS), and was enjoying a great HD comedy series almost immediately. Even better, the Roku Player remembers where you are in the queue, so if you are watching a series, you can come back to the next episode the next time you feel like watching it; no need to scroll through the queue if you haven’t watched something else in the same queue in the meantime.

Now, about that no power switch thing: The Roku Player goes into deep sleep mode after a few minutes of no activity. The power light (the only visible sign of life on the front panel) goes off. Even at the maximum possible power draw from the wall-wart, it’s under 7 watts, so you’re not going to save a lot, but it’s nice to know that Roku is as “green” as humanly possible.

Bottom line: If you have a good, solid, fast Internet connection, and your monthly download bandwidth is uncapped, and you want great HDTV streaming video, the Roku Player is a great piece of equipment. For me, it’s the best hundred bucks I’ve ever spent on an electronic entertainment device.

UPDATE: 1 December 2009
Last month, Roku added 10 more channels to the available lineup. You can read about them at Roku’s site. However, that’s not what I want to talk about now. Right now, I feel I should give you two warnings: First warning: Roku’s tech support is pathetically bad. As is normal for anything tech-related nowadays, the “technicians” are very obviously in India; that would be OK, if they were actually competent to answer questions, but they are not. Email support is pretty much non-existent; they never actually address any questions you ask them. The toll-free support line is simply some guy reading a script (also, unfortunately, quite normal in the industry), which is bad enough, but even after you tell him you have already done several of the obvious steps, like disconnecting the power, waiting a few minutes, and reconnecting it, he will read that question off the script and ask you again. I’ve called several times, and this is not just one guy; apparently it is company policy to assume all customers are liars and idiots. And that brings me to the Second Warning: Under no circumstances should you give an email address to Roku if you don’t want spam at that address. Mind you, it’s not a lot of spam, but Roku is now trying to sell me the exact same box I already have, via “email marketing” (also known as “unsolicited bulk email,” or “spam” to normal people). I get enough spam, as I am sure everyone else does; I don’t need more from Roku, especially when it’s such brain-dead content.

I’m still glad I bought the device, but I will forever rue the day I let Roku know my email address.

UPDATE: 21 December 2009
Belated report on the firmware update: As it turns out, the “factory default reset” which was advised by Roku’s India-based “customer support” was not merely unnecessary, it was counter-productive, since I had to re-associate my Roku player with my Netflix and Amazon VOD accounts afterward, and still didn’t get the update. I found out that it was unnecessary by reading through the Roku customer forums for a couple of hours, until I discovered a post that claimed the update could be forced to happen by trying it twice within 20 seconds. I tried it, and viola!

UPDATE: 22 July 2010 Since December, Roku has continued to add channels, and my aggravation has decreased massively. There are almost enough channels now to allow me to dump my satellite TV provider (which I’m stuck with until the end of the contract in November anyhow), including among others: Revision 3, Flickr, MediaFly, TwitTV, Pandora, and a plethora of others. There is also at least one app available that lets you stream your own media – video, photos, and music – from a home server to the Roku box so you don’t have to have a noisy (and usually unattractive) PC in the same room with the TV. I’m running MyMedia on my Windows Home Server and watching my video collection without bothering to get up and find the DVD. So at this point, the Roku HD player is back on my “must have” list.

UPDATE: 31 August 2010 As of now, you can get the Roku HD (the model I reviewed here) for less than $70, with free shipping, AND with a $10 gift card for Amazon Video On Demand. I am seriously considering getting a second one. I’m not sure why yet.

And the “technical support” is still abysmal; no matter what the problem is, the drones in Mumbai still tell you to perform a factory reset. The *correct* answer is usually the same as for any PC – disconnect power, wait a minute or two, reconnect power. In other words, reboot. Or as my friends on “The I.T. Crowd” like to say, “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?”

2 Comments on “Review: Roku Player

  1. I love the Roku player with one reservation. When the internet connection slows it can be quite jarring when your screen goes black and the re-buffering bar comes up. It would be nice if this could be handled in the background somehow.

    With that exception, it is an amazing little box.

    Now I’m off to try my Netflix Streaming disc in the PS3 and see if it is a good as the Roku.

    Dean

  2. Outstanding blog, useful information .Thanks with regard to this great write-up – I will certainly be sure to checkout your weblog more frequently.

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